In this Tuesday, May 28, 2019, photo a homemade sign is posted on a telephone pole in protest of Central Maine Power's controversial hydropower transmission corridor in Jackman, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s campaign finance watchdog voted on Tuesday to investigate whether a dark-money group opposing Central Maine Power’s corridor proposal qualifies as a political committee.

Clean Energy Matters, a CMP-funded political committee, brought three ethics complaints, two concerning whether Stop the Corridor and Say No to NECEC, a grassroots group that shares leadership with an anti-corridor committee, should be made to register as political committees. The Maine Ethics Commission backed an investigation into the first group, but not the second.

The main issue was whether Stop the Corridor, a limited-liability company that does not have to disclose its donors, had shifted its “major purpose” by assisting an anti-corridor political action committee in signature gathering after advertising against the project for months.

Tuesday’s ethics hearing came after Secretary of State Matt Dunlap’s office certified enough signatures last week to put a question aiming to kill the project on the November ballot. The utility argued that thousands of those signatures could be invalid, teasing a court challenge.

Before the commission on Tuesday, Katherine Knox, an attorney for Stop the Corridor, argued its purpose was always to influence the permitting process and that it adhered to state reporting laws. Stop the Corridor reported in-kind contributions of $50,000 to a political committee running the anti-corridor referendum, but it declined to tell the commission how it raised money.

“There isn’t a single slice of evidence that we have raised money for this initiative,” Knox said, adding that interest in a group’s funding is not enough grounds to call for an investigation.

The CMP-linked group has argued the group’s involvement in helping collect signatures showed the group was an active party in the campaign once the signature-gathering process for an anti-corridor people’s referendum began in the fall. Attorney Newell Augur pointed to municipal petition logs and ads showing Stop the Corridor representatives picking up signatures.

If required to register as a political action committee, Stop the Corridor would have to disclose donors. It could also face a penalty for late registration and plus additional penalties for filing reports late if those reports meet a donation threshold.

The commission voted 2 to 1 to investigate Stop the Corridor, with William Lee, a Democratic attorney from Waterville, and Richard Nass, a former Republican state senator from Acton, voting in favor. Meri Lowry, a Democrat from Portland, voted against it, arguing that a few months of activity didn’t represent a broad shift in the group’s purpose.

Commissioners unanimously found that not enough evidence was presented to warrant an investigation into Say No to NECEC after wrestling with a question of whether donors would have thought Say No was soliciting money for a referendum prior to filing to collect signatures for the effort and members forming a political action committee.

In both cases, information on funding was limited. Stop the Corridor declined to give commission staff information about its fundraising activities, while Say No to NECEC provided snapshots of its GoFundMe page donations.

Jonathan Wayne, the executive director of the commission, said in a memo that there was not enough information about how Stop the Corridor operates and is funded to show a violation has occurred and suggesting the commission should decide for itself. While commission staff initially recommended investigating Say No to NECEC, Wayne said Tuesday that an investigation would not be worthwhile “based on the strength of the evidence.”

A third complaint concerned whether gas generator-funded committee Mainers For Local Energy should be fined after providing late notice to backers that they needed to file with the state after injecting more than $100,000 into the campaign.

Calpine disclosed in a report due in January that it put $100,000 into the political committee on Dec. 19, while Vistra filed a notice with the state last month saying it put $100,000 or more into the campaign as of Jan. 2. That second disclosure was due five days later under state law, but it wasn’t filed until Jan. 28.

Both Texas-based companies generate electricity with natural gas and are the sole funders of the committee. Local Energy claimed it was unaware of the requirements for major donations and corrected the error, according to a staff memo.

The commission unanimously voted to fine that group $2,500, in line with commission staff’s recommendation.